Jungle Trek

If you ever find yourself in Singapore, one thing you should do is leave Singapore and pop over to Sumatra for a vicious and beautiful hike.  Bob Fest- to whom I will only refer by his full name because I love it- recommended that I do this because Sumatra is one of only two places left- the other being Borneo- where you can see orangutans (from orang = human and utan = forest) in their natural habitat and honey, it is nuts.  

“Fockin ‘ell!” as one of the Brits with me said.  And he wasn’t kidding.

The hike started with a pleasant stroll through a woodsy area, where farmers were harvesting the rubber trees and monkeys snapped banana breakfast off the bunch.  


The bloody mozzies- I’m allowed to say stuff like that now because I spent the day with Rory and George, a couple of UK-raised city boys out for a laugh- were also breakfasting, except on me.  Note to self: jungle bugs are no joke.  If the airport confiscates your aerosol DEET, replace it.  Replace it so, so hard.

Speaking of hard, did you know that Sumatra is mountainous?  I suppose if I had thought about it, the word “highlands” might have come to mind, but I did precious little thinking about anything but great apes when I pictured this trip.  And I am definitely recommending this trip, but before you go: get in shape, girl.  Going up, it was so steep that my k-caps were closer to my chest than the ground for each step, and we’d use thick, sturdy branches to haul us up further.  It’s quite a workout for the whole glutes area.  Difficulty levels were the same going down except knees- instead of buns- took the brunt, and we went way up and way down five or six times each.  I spent a lot of the hike trying not to breathe too loudly because I was with four men, all of whom were 10-15 years younger, and I wanted to represent.  

It was absolutely worth it, however, when we came upon the orangs.  The first couple were just hanging out being gentle and lazy near another bunch of monkeys, so we hung out, too, gaping and wide-eyed and clicking away.  Our guides, Hermie and Juju, kept pointing us toward the best photo ops and giving us tidbits of helpful jungle knowledge.  

“The orangutans’ natural predators,” Hermie said, “are pythons and tigers.”


Well, that was a bit worrisome until he eventually added that pythons are nocturnal.  As for tigers, they rarely see them, but carefully monitor motion-sensitive cameras in order to stay out of their way.  Humans are in the same family as orangutans- in fact, we’re more closely related to them and to other great apes like gorillas, chimpanzees, and bonobos than apes are to monkeys- and the apes tend to warily ignore us here.  Tigers, on the other hand, are not afraid to make the first lethal move.

I should back up and say that there is one terrifying orang named Mina.  Mina has apparently attacked over a hundred visitors and guides, and is locally famous for her propensity to bite.  Like, people: she bites people.  When we hiked through her territory, Juju went way ahead scouting, and then made sure she was continually fed (fruit) while we scuttled and stared.

This is Mina:



And this little one swung around nearby:

Of course, I had to capture more Thomas’s Leaf monkeys:

And then after five or so hours and a solid leg and eye workout, Juju and I broke off for the duration.  The other guys were spending the night on a platform in the jungle or some other such craziness so hiked deeper into the underbrush.  I, on the other hand, dunked myself almost immediately upon reaching this river:


and then it was time to raft!  It’s about a half hour of drift, occasional whitewater, and monitor lizards sunning themselves before arrival back at the guest house, and I thought my day was complete.

But oh!  Another adventure!  

This nice local man popped by my room to check on tomorrow’s ride and payment, and that’s when we realized that the guesthouse only takes cash, and I had none.

“No worries, no worries,” he grinned, “I’ll take you to ATM on motorbike.  I’m very good driver.  It’s only 8, 9 kilometers away.”

Ohhhhh, the fear.  If you know me, you know that I’m locked in a lifelong struggle with anything with two wheels.  Bikes?  Crashed, or crashed into.  Scooter?  Goodbye, $1000 and hello, shredded shin skin.  And those are the only three times I’ve attempted since 2001.

Until today.  

Somehow today, I felt obligated.  I found myself (seconds later, and without forethought) helmetless on the back of a motorbike, knees in a death grip around this Indonesian stranger and putt-putting down a road that looked a lot like this


except with more potholes and fewer cooperative rocks.  Also without the benefits of vehicular laws or courtesy.  There was bouncing and swerving.  There was a bridge over troubled water that was barely wider than we were, and it was made of strung wire and rotting wood.*


*I didn’t have a camera at the time, but later I was able to snap this thing so you could get a vague idea.  Picture this, but with fewer wires and boards.  Yeah.

“Oh my… oh,” I shuddered.  “That was really scary.”

“That’s because some of the planks are falling off.”

Again I say to you: eh?

We sped up after the bridge and dodged water buffalo, literal chickens crossing the road, and then ducks and a single cow.  We passed fires and tires-as-speed-bumps.  Children were yelling hello to me, despite the hundreds of other motorbikes weaving on the roads.  I forced smiles at them, whiter even than usual but trying to be the friendly Caucasian.  

A machete-wielding man worked the rice paddy to our left, and past him danced the Muslim ladies’ outdoor aerobics troupe.  A van stopped short in front of us, and opened the door in our faces as we passed on the right.  Another cut us off horizontally, then stopped dead in the road.

“That’s Indonesia,” said my driver after our skid, good-naturedly shaking his head.  My hands had become claws on the grip bars.  

In my absolute terror, and in the middle of the trip, I managed to look up.  We were passing a river in which the happy little nakeds were bathing, and there was a jungle behind it, mountains behind that, and all was capped by a fiery start to the sunset.  It was magic hour, and all of a sudden magical.

This has quite possibly been the most exhilarating day of my life.

Good thing, too, because when, after 20 minutes, we got to the ATM, I had definitely forgotten to bring my card.  Fear factor for what, now?

Doesn’t matter- as I write this I’m having a pleasant porch beer, and I’m highly recommending this adventure spot.  Go here, guys: Bukit Lawang, Sumatra.

Motorbikes notwithstanding, it’s the good life.  

A Tale of Two Toilets

“If you flip it this way, it’s the bidet,” said Yusof, foreshadowing the supremely embarrassing TGIF-sitcom moment to come, “and if you flip it this way, it’s the wash.  Good?”

“Good,” I said.  I paid very close attention in order to avoid the previously described moment, so visualized the switches while I did a little memory-enhancing chant.  It’s not an unpleasant way to do business.  

Anyway, I finished, and flipped to wash.  Unfortunately, Singapore is an extremely densely populated country.  Thus, Noreha and Yusof live in a beautifully decorated and well-appointed condo, but it is designed to be efficient, not spacious.  I had to lean over the bowl to flip.

You have probably already guessed that I proceeded to get a face full of bidet stream.

I yelped.  Soaked and flailing, I managed to dive out of the way, redirecting the gushing toward the opposite wall where it flowed to an accusing puddle on the floor.  

Ahhhh, damn.

I had managed to throw the flow back into neutral as part of my escape dive, so I carefully leaned over the bowl again.  I wanted as much of the evidence as possible to disappear before I had to call for backup about the incidental waterfall.

Flipped the switch the other way.  You guessed it: another face full of toilet-from-a-tube-water.

Not that I keep a list, but it certainly wasn’t a top bathroom moment.

Two days later, however, in the middle of mountainous Sumatran jungle, I am craving bidet, but the good news is that I have found a silver lining to the hospital!  See, after a day or so where they wouldn’t let me shower, brush my teeth, or otherwise handle my personal hygiene needs, my savior Devi brought me a bagful of necessities, including a bunch of those disposable towelettes you can use as a sort of spongebath.  I didn’t need all of them after finding a sympathetic nurse who let me take a late-night shower, so I tossed them into my bag yesterday as I was packing.  The description for this jungle trek I’m doing said, basically, “you’ll stay at a guesthouse for a night, hike around to see orangutans and stuff, and then raft back down the river to the guesthouse.  BYOTP.”  

I thought the tp was for jungle business, but it turns out it’s also for the guesthouse, where there is also no sink or soap.  There’s a big bucket of water in the combination shower/toilet, but there’s no flush- you have to dump gallons of water each time you go to push everything through.  After wading through the layer of Indonesian bathroom ants, you can rinse your hands in shower water, but there’s nothing, you know, that lathers reassuringly.  

So I’m glad I can use the hospital hygiene cloths (which I would not have had for my originally scheduled trip here, which I missed because I was- you guessed it- in the hospital) before wrapping myself back in the mosquito netting and falling into an adrenaline-filled sleep.   That would make more sense to you if you could experience the sheer decibal level of “things that go screech in the night.”  Sleeping here is a series of one-hour naps, punctuated by a lot of piercing screams by unidentified equatorial demons.

It’s so exciting!    

The bathrooms have stoked my fires of intrepidness.  We leave in a hour for Sumatran orangutan hikes.  And I reallllllly hope the next blog can boast better pictures- this one’s good, but it’s teachers, Yusof, and me, and humans aren’t quite as exciting as endangered animals.




This One’s For Teachers

Okay, teachers: when’s the last time you sat in a staff meeting and had a truly student-centered, collaborative conversation without wanting to find out how far from the walls your own head would bounce?

No?  Anyone?  You in the back, playing HQ trivia on your knee under the table when 3 pm falls during pd time?

I know.

Isn’t it great when it actually happens, though?

Snideness aside, I do work with some fantastic, dedicated teachers and have high hopes that collaboration will improve, since we finally have some sort of administrative stability in my district.  For the first 11 years, though, there was a different admin team (building through Central Office) literally yearly- I mean, people were whizzing through these jobs with the longevity of your typical Trump hire, and that doesn’t really bode well for, you know, trust or fidelity to the idea of committing to any long-term initiative.  Doesn’t matter how great the leadership is if the ducks stay lame for over a decade.  People generally just hid in their own bubbles, focused on their own students, and did the best work they could by themselves.  

But I know what the larger-scale ideal can look like, and yo: we have to keep shooting for that.

Quite a few years ago, I started representing my staff at district union meetings since- well, to be honest, since nobody else would do it and I thought it was a big deal.  

Because of my inability to sit down and shut up (more the latter than the former; I’m actually world class at sitting and I practice variations of it daily) I injected myself during the first meeting into a contentious debate about teacher evaluation and said something that must have reflected one of my less idiotic musings (ex: why is there only one rapper named Common?) because the president hijacked me after the meeting for further conversation.  And as a result, she singlehandedly changed my entire professional life.  

She introduced me to effective teaming.  She brought me into groups of thoughtful educators within and outside of my district representing varied, nuanced perspectives, and she welcomed me at conferences (TURN, specifically, which you should absolutely check out if you’re in the US and your d is into research-based effective practice and social justice through labor/management collaborations) that challenged my thinking about how I do my job.

And those teams actually had focused conversations about how to do good work together.  People didn’t always agree, but I was leaving meetings- meetings!- with a sense of having worked hard with a group of like-minded people who sometimes even got to make funny jokes.  And I was inspired to improve my practice.  

It was so satisfying.

I’m sitting in the same kind of meeting now, in Singapore, with a bunch of teachers collaborating on student conduct grades.  Form teachers (like a homeroom or advisory teacher) gave initial impressions, but all educators who work with each student- they go through them individually- can give evidence that informs where a kid would fall on the rubric.  

I’ve been here an hour already, and this team has been on task the whole time, can respectfully disagree with each other while talking through the evidence they’ve gathered, and sometimes laugh, even, without going into a tangential wormhole.  There are 33 adults in this room and they’re going through each of their children thoughtfully and with love.  

I’m totally inspired.  It reminds me how many teachers are willing to do this work with a positive attitude- they’ve been here since 7 am, will be here until at least 5, and I don’t know where they all live but my commute is over an hour so they can’t all be close- when there’s so much else to be done, too.  

I look at teachers I work with, and teachers here, and teachers all over my social media feeds who are doing way more than the average troll knows.  So much of it is thankless and emotionally exhausting work, but it’s so, so important to do together and to do well.  

Cheers, y’all.  Thanks for doing the best work.  I’m excited to connect with you again.

(Pic from the UAE and not Singapore, but it’s a bunch of teachers collaborating so we’re just going to run with it… also I’m wearing a suit, photographic evidence of which does not exist anywhere outside November of 2016. Does it make you take me more seriously?)

Pulau Ubin

You’ll need a fortifying breakfast to hike around in “feels like” 100º sun all day looking for wild boars, and I recommend the tentacle noodles at the place by the dock at Pulau Ubin.  If you get there by ten, you’ll have your pick of seaside tables while the rest of the day tourists pick out whichever bicycle they’ll be harassing you off the roads with later.  

Very soon into your well-marked and leisurely stroll, you will have sweat right through your dark t-shirt, which you have not chosen for its ability to hide such things or, for that matter, for wicking quality, which was a gigantic mistake.  So ladies, wear your most flatteringly-shaped brassiere.  It will briefly (underwear pun!) be the only thing visible of your upper parts.  

Don’t worry, that’ll soon be soaked, too.

If you follow a similar path to mine, you’ll saunter toward the signs that say “Chek Jawa”, which has a pleasing Jedi name and which you have noted from your Internet research is the “don’t miss” wetlands part, even though you did not read so far as the “go at low tide” part.  It matters not; Pulau Ubin is chock full of sweet nature if you know how to shut the hell up with your squeaky bicycle!  


When you pass the pond with all the lily pads, definitely go for a closer look.  Dragonflies patiently await your fancy camera, and if you’re lucky, you’ll hear an ominously close splash.  Look at it- the head will be about the size of your foot, except black and with the requisite reptilian eyeballs, and since that is the only part poking out of the water in which the demon will take its leave, you will briefly grapple with the horror that you have somehow come across a hungry anaconda and your fight or flight response will completely forget to tell you that you haven’t hopped a wormhole to Brazil.

It’s good, it gets the blood going.  Plus, monitor lizards are really cool, too.  


Continue down the the lush roads and trails.  You may find it prudent to take out your headphones in order to hear the warning slither, and it’s advisable to pause often to ascertain the source of the jungle sounds.  The treetop ruckus is common and means macaques; hissing means you should stay this far away:


The groundswell of rustling might mean boar, but they’re easy to miss unless it’s dawn when they move to new food (apparently, and dammit).  I only caught a quick glimpse of one and it was through the underbrush, and only because I was practicing my Katniss Everdeen hunting walk with my ears open.  By the time I got my camera focused, he was merely a flash in the palms.  

Still, it pays to be still.  Pick any pretty area and stand for a bit, waiting for humanity’s jabber to fade in the three-speed distance.  If you let yourself settle and wait for movement, you’re almost guaranteed a treat.  This crab wasn’t even my favorite, but as it’s photogenic, here you go:


The wetlands are worth a good gander, even when tidally off-peak.  You’ll still get these trails, and these photo ops:

And I do love me a good mangrove grove.  


So yes, Pulau Ubin: recommended.  Bring six bucks for the round-trip bumboat ferry, and enjoy yourself as much as I did.

And tomorrow: I look for the equally elusive wild one.  Yes, folks, Benedict Cumberbatch is in Singapore.

Oh, shoot- I hope he didn’t see me in my sweaty shirt.

The Awkward Stuff

“I hope you don’t miss us because we will never miss you.  We love you,” said one of my students, baffling me on this slide show they put together before I left. She does speak a couple of languages so, you know, semantics… and anyway it didn’t confuse me as much as, for example, this:

best friends single

If you look closely, to the far left of that pink thing tooting on the surprised man, it says, “Hey, remember me?  We were best friends, when you were single.”  

Absolute befuddlement here.  Whether or not I am single at any given time affects my relationship with students exactly none.  Wait, no.  One of my fourth graders in Charleston really liked Pete.  One day in class, he raised his hand politely during something completely unrelated like verb tenses, and when I called on him, he said, “um”.  

I remember this vividly, like 2004 was yesterday.

“Last night I learned what a virgin was and I know you have Pete and everything and I just wanted to know if you were one.”

Totally charmed. I never want to lead a classroom where kids don’t feel comfortable enough to ask me stuff like that, even if it’s #1 awkward (sorry, #2 awkward.  #1 awkward always and forever goes to the student who, when I asked another kid what he was going to do to fix something, waited through five seconds of tense silence before yelling, “hit ‘er in the boob!”  Priceless, and catchphrase 2012.) 

Anyway, the virgin thing led to a really good conversation with 26 9-year-olds about how there are some topics people tend to keep quiet about in professional places like school and work, unless of course you are President.   Isn’t it better that they learn that stuff from someone who can understand it as curiosity and then answer it with compassion?  I thought it was a good learning moment, but in retrospect perhaps why the principal took to observing (and no joke, transcribing every word of) my class on a daily basis, driving me right out of teaching until the Pete thing fell apart and I found myself dazed in a classroom in Maine. 

Where I taught more students who continually make me grin.  I mean, they sent me these.  What do these things mean?  

There were a lot of really beautiful notes, too, and I’m thankful the kids took the time to make something this special even though the nice ones are not nearly as hilarious as the ones that say things like “we shall miss you, most of us at least”.

most of us at least

I was looking at it yesterday because- like in Charleston- I’ve temporarily left teaching and I miss that interaction with kids, and with close relationships in general.  I love this whole experience but I came here alone, as a complete stranger. I definitely did not anticipate feeling that so deeply.  

The thing is, as a grown one and realistically, I know I’m not alone.  I miss the ease with which I can be with friends and family, but in the scheme of things, a couple of months in a adult time is nothing.  

It does go back to the kids, though.  The more I’m learning here about humanity and child development and the effect of childhood trauma, the more I realize that forming a solid student-teacher relationship of trust is absolutely the most important thing I do.  Some kids don’t have that knowledge that things will get better in a couple of months.  Some kids need a smile every day- the consistency of knowing that at least one person is there for them.  All kids need to know that I genuinely care about and will listen to them- not just during the attention-getting boob comments, but every single time time they need it.  And contrary to what I used to believe- I used to think my actions, having high expectations, and pushing them to do well would show them I care- I know now that I have to explicitly tell them consistently and often.  People, especially kids who mostly deal with unreliable (at best) adults, should not be forced to guess at the reasons for my behavior.

I think I’ve done a decent job of it since my virgin days of teaching.  I still have a few students who contact me here every week, from the ones whose class I left to alumni I had years ago, and I love that.  I love knowing that if I do good work, it means something.

I just hope that they know that, too.

Sex, Guns, and Chicken

I swear I’m not going to do another sex ed entry so soon, but in the name of reinforcing the importance of a subject I’ve previously covered:

“I think sexuality education is very valuable,” said the girl today, during the focus group (five kids ages 13-16) I got to hold about Character and Citizenship Education.  I didn’t prompt that part, lest you think I corral teenagers into some sort of Frank Talk With a Foreigner zone of embarrassment.  My question was about CCE in general, and what they find useful in the lessons.

Anyway, the kid immediately looked at her hands.  Then she giggled, and looked at her friend, who giggled more.

The other three young ones started snickering, too, and I couldn’t help but join.

“Soooooooooo, yeah,” she concluded as our laughter trickled to a halt.  It was in just exactly the manner of many of my students back home.

“I mean… yeah.”

The friend then added that she found it really useful to have protected time to talk about what’s going on in the news.  I was heartened by this, as I am when I see kids all over Twitter being worldly and empathetic in their response to violence and injustice.  Aloud, I wondered if they focused on Singaporean or Southeast Asian news, but she said no, that it’s global affairs, that we all share a world.

It’s possible I looked a little sheepish.  “So, you talk about the US and stuff, too? About our…”

“Guns,” another boy filled in.  And he gave me a look and a shrug like, we know it’s not you, but… guns.

That’s the reputation we’re shouldering, and it’s distressing.  I popped over to the Straits Times today- that’s Singapore’s biggest daily newspaper- and it’s unbelievable what a difference exists in our national headlines.  The two biggest local stories (outside of the Malaysian election, which is a bit of a media vampire) are

  1. the crispiness of a chicken that was cooked on a television show (they call it Rendanggate, by the way, “Rendang” being the chicken recipe and “gate” being evidence that there is no earthly limit to historic American corruption and the way we spread its name) and
  2. this dude who was putting masking tape on his fingers so he wouldn’t leave prints on the shirts of the girls whose boobs he was grabbing on bridges.  Seriously.  He was caught, caned, and imprisoned for three years, and that is truly the most dangerous or violent thing I’ve heard of since I arrived here in January.  I love feeling so safe here; it’s comforting.  Compare that with, for example, US gymnastics and try not to throw up.

Wow, I just got really demoralized, but then heard a ding from my phone.  No joke, this guy I know texted me this:


See how far it’s spread?  At least I’m grinning again, and I should probably end on that note.

Sex, violence, and chickens: it’s never a typical day.  Oh, and the moral?  It’s the same here as it is when I look at the US news right now.

The moral here is that the kids are alright.  We have got to keep talking to and with them.

On Singlish

Turns out, I could not pay my hospital bill at 7/11.  Well, I could have, but who carries $2,200 cash into a place whose inventory is mostly dedicated to rice triangles, condoms*, and coffee in a can?  We teachers have to put bills like that on credit and pay them off until we’re 105 and finally, according to LePage’s “teachers will never deserve to retire; let’s drive them out” pension plan, be able drag our decrepit selves out of the classroom.

You’re damn right I stand with you, Oklahoma, Kentucky, and West Virginia.

I am really *&(^% frustrated, can you tell?  (Side note: Wow, in the olden days, those symbols were exclusively for indicating the angry swearword.  Nowadays, you never know what accidental emoji you might be forming.)

Language, dang.

It’s 3:30 pm.  I’ve been on hold with the payment desk at the hospital for 34 minutes and I’ve been working on getting my insurance and money organized since approximately last week, and nothing at all is straightforward.  I am extremely grumpy about it and so I am going to talk about Singlish, which gives me the pleasant glow.

Singlish is one of my favorite things about Singapore.  It first charmed me when I noticed the “la” at the ends of sentences, which of course took me straight back home to all my Franglais friends from the County.  Here’s my favorite incidence, which I found hanging from a table in a store:


While English the main official language here, Singlish is the more charming colloquial one.  It’s a sort of creole mix of English, Malay, Tamil and some of the more common Chinese dialects like Hokkien and Cantonese. To me, it’s the most “Singapore” thing in town, a uniquely non-ethnic, non-racial, purely national reflection of identity.  I love listening to it, and even though I can only understand approximately half of what’s happening and potentially none of the intent, it pleases me to my bones that a country that boasts of dozens of different mother tongues (if all Chinese dialects are included, which they definitely should be) has figured out a way to merge them all into one magnificent tool of intercultural communication.

I also love that the Singlish satirical website was called talkingcock.com, after the Singlish phrase that indicates verbal nonsense.  I love that when the government came up with a “Speak Good English” campaign that urged people to stick with the Queen’s E, there was a snarky “Speak Good Singlish” crusade in response.

I love that there’s such evidence of linguistic evolution, that people can come together from different backgrounds to create something dynamic and lyrical and their own.

It all gives me a great, lifting hope in humanity, which I desperately need when I’m concurrently dealing with insurance companies.

Gotta go, y’all.  Interminable paperwork calls.

*I am continually flabbergasted by the prominence of prophylactics in Singapore groceries and convenience stores.  Even though I try not to be a jerk about having preconceived notions (oooh, there’s a conception joke in there somewhere) I definitely did not expect to see things like condoms on perpetual display.  Especially since the government is so concerned about the low birth rate that they have actually subsidized baby making!  Honestly if they transferred the heavy levies on booze to condoms, I guarantee the problem would solve itself.  Sorry, Mom.